Many so-called “alternative” remedies exploit the illusion of causality, Matute said, by targeting conditions that naturally have high rates of spontaneous recovery, such as headaches, back pain and colds. Quack cures remain popular in part because they bestow a sense of empowerment on people who are feeling miserable, by giving them something to do while they wait for their problem to run its course.
Even when the evidence for or against a treatment or intervention is clear, medical providers and patients may not accept it. In some cases, the causality illusion is to blame, but usually the reasons are more complex. Other cognitive biases — such as motivated reasoning (all of us want to believe that the things we do make a difference), base rate neglect (failing to pay attention to what happens in the absence of the intervention), and confirmation bias (the tendency to look for evidence that supports what you already know and to ignore the rest) — also influence how we process information. In medicine, perverse incentives can push people in the wrong direction. There’s no easy fix here.
One thing seems clear, though. Simply exposing people to more information doesn’t help. Last year, political scientist Brendan Nyhan at Dartmouth and his collaborators published a randomized trial of four different approaches to influencing attitudes about vaccines among parents. The study’s 1,759 participants were split into groups, and each subset was presented with information about why vaccines are important — everything from why the diseases that a measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine could prevent are worth avoiding to images of children stricken with those diseases and a heart-felt story about an infant who nearly died of a case of measles. None of these efforts made parents more likely to vaccinate their kids.
“Experian is a data broker well known for selling credit scores—which include information on bankruptcies,” Libert said. “Academic research by Senator Elizabeth Warren has shown that over 60 percent of bankruptcies are medical-related. Given that I found Experian tracking users on thousands of health-related web pages, it is entirely possible the company not only knows which individuals went bankrupt for medical reasons, but when they first went online to learn about their illness as well. In essence Experian can follow an individual from her first sneeze to her final unpaid hospital bill.” (Experian failed to respond when asked to comment.)
Quintin agrees this poses a real threat. “I would say that’s totally possible.” He suggests that it’s plausible that the medical data these brokers vacuum up could eventually be factored into your credit score—and even used to determine how much you pay for health care. “Look, this is all speculative, right? But if I’m a bank and you’re applying for a loan, there’s no reason I would not want that information.” And the data brokers could provide it. “There’s this advertising demographic of you, and now you’re getting healthcare data in there, too. How much are we going to charge you for healthcare, if you’ve been searching for ‘cancer’ and a bunch of illnesses? Health care services could raise your rates.”
“Another nightmare scenario is applying for jobs,” Quintin continued. “A company might get a demographic profile from one of these data brokers and use that information to decide whether or not to hire you.”
But the chief problem is simply that just about all of the above, under current laws, is legal.
3. King David – In Memory of David Carr
I did not know of David Carr or his contributions and influence until he died last week. I’m sure I’d read something by him and not known it. I am, however, happy to be able to go back and read his thoughts and all the thoughts of the people he helped become writers and journalists.
What I remember about chasing that story is the fear—the fear of offending, of asking impolite questions, of intruding. But you could not work for City Paper without learning how to walk the streets of D.C., approach people you did not previously know and barrage them with intimate questions. This is an essential skill for any journalist—but it also one of the hardest things to do. But David had no tolerance of our fears, save fear of him. And if we could learn to be as deeply intolerant of our fears as he was, then a thousand glories lay on the other side.
This was represented in David himself, a man who was as effusive in praise as he was damning in condemnation. I still remember stumbling upon him in another editor’s office having just turned in a draft of that eviction story, and David looking up and saying, “We were just here talking about your incredible fucking story.” No one had ever said anything like that to me. I remember my mother calling the office one day to talk to me. And David, in his brusque, brutal way, grabbed the phone from me and said, “I just want you to know that your son is here working his ass off.” No one had ever said anything like that to my parents about me. I was a fuck-up. I was a knucklehead. I was going to end up on the corner. I was going to end up in jail. I was going to end up dead.
And then I wasn’t.
David Carr convinced me that, through the constant and forceful application of principle, a young hopper, a fuck-up, a knucklehead, could bring the heavens, the vast heavens, to their knees. The principle was violent and incessant curiosity represented in the craft of narrative argument. That was the principle and craft I employed in writing “The Case for Reparations.” That is part of the reason why the George Polk Award, the one with my name on it, belongs to David. But that is not the most significant reason.
Kenneth Hayworth, a neuroscientist and president of the Brain Preservation Foundation, also sees no reason why a digital brain should be somehow less than a real one. And to those who would argue that these digital uploads of a person’s mind are merely copies, Hayworth suggests considering what type of thing a person is to start. “We have discovered through cognitive science and neuroscience that we are like a program; we are like a data file on a computer in the sense that the information that makes us unique is the only thing that is truly us.”
(It should be noted that Hayworth isn’t too worried yet about the legal and moral status of conscious simulations. “This will not happen tomorrow,” he says. “I would hope that in 50 to 100 years that we would have gotten our act together such that [emulations] would have full rights.”)
A notable voice of dissent on the prospect of WBEs is Duke Neuroscience Professor Miguel Nicolelis. Nicolelis has made headlines for his lab’s work with brain-machine interfaces and primate neuroprosthetics. In 2013, he was quoted in MIT’s Technology Review as saying, “Downloads will never happen… There are a lot of people selling the idea that you can mimic the brain with a computer… You could have all the computer chips ever in the world and you won’t create a consciousness.”
When asked for a comment today, Nicolelis simply responded, “I stand by my previous comments: simulating the work of a human brain in a digital machine is impossible.”
Again, many feel that thought experiments like Hanson’s and Sanders’ are worthless. Why waste time on potential future problems when there are so many current ones? But it makes sense, perhaps, to step back and try to predict the future so that we have a better chance of navigating when it arrives. The day may come when we create software that has the capacity to suffer. And when this happens, we need to pay attention. We need to care.
After all, as Sandberg writes, “When the future arrives we may know far more, but we will have less ability to change it.”